Anchorage medical providers must give cost estimates on demand, Assembly says

The Anchorage Assembly passed a new law Tuesday night that requires medical providers to give cost estimates for health care services to patients who ask for them.

The Assembly also authorized a new labor contract with the Anchorage electrical workers union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547.

Other, more contentious measures regulating ride-booking companies, the resale of used metal and unauthorized drone use above private property were postponed until March 21, in a meeting that extended past 11 p.m. Tuesday night.

Public hearings on the measures drew out taxi drivers who said they didn't think ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft should be treated differently from taxi companies in city law, and auctioneers upset by the security demands of being asked to hold gold and other precious metals for a month's time, in case the items were stolen.

Before a hearing on the ordinance regulating drone use, Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, who introduced the measure, brought forward an amendment to exempt commercial drone operators from the restrictions.

The change drew praise from commercial operators who came to testify. But there were still concerns about whether the measure — which bars drones from flying less than 50 feet above private property without permission — would accomplish the aim of protecting privacy, while not causing confusion with federal regulations.

New rules for healthcare costs

The Assembly vote in favor of the measure related to health care costs was 9-1, with Assemblywoman Amy Demboski voting no and Assemblyman Bill Starr absent.

The ordinance, as approved by the Assembly, directs providers to give patients a non-binding price estimate for services within 10 business days upon request. Estimates would include the projected costs of treatments, supplies, procedures and other expenses.

The ordinance directs billing codes to be included as a way for patients to contact insurance to find out what's covered, if the medical provider hasn't already talked to insurers.

The measure doesn't apply to emergency services.

The administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz started exploring the idea in June 2016 amid a rising focus on the cost of health care in Alaska, according to a memo accompanying the ordinance.

A representative of Providence Medical Group asked the Assembly to delay adopting the measure to see if the Alaska Legislature would adopt a similar "health care transparency" law this session. Demboski, who has worked with billing in dental offices, said that health care costs are more complicated than the measure reflects.